24 August 2012

Old SF in new bottles

Science Fiction | Isaac Asimov, Ross Rocklynne, AE Van Vogt, Lester Del Rey, Theodore Sturgeon | The Big and the Little (anthology)

This is a neat little anthology comprising "short stories from the Golden Age of Science Fiction" by Jaico Publishing House, and cost a mere Rs 225 in 2004. It has five stories, and I'll take them up one by one.

The Big and the Little by I Asimov is part of the Foundation series, and was originally published, like the rest of the stories collected in novel-sized volumes, as a separate novelette in the series. This story brings to you Hober Mallow, a trader, and the next Seldon crisis facing the Foundation. Having used religion and magic tricks to awe the remnants of the galactic empire nearest their own base, the Foundation has atrophied into a dogmatic insistence that only trade strongly linked to missionary activity (in which the non-Foundation people are kept as ignorant as possible) is the key to their safety and stability. What happens when this collides head-on with a trader's natural instinct? What if the minor princelings around actually have atomic energy? (When this story was written, atomic technology was the be-end and all-end of scientific endeavour, and the computers are quaint at best). But it's human nature which brings forth the solution. This particular story has relatively fewer anachronisms, and is a fun read (if you ignore the 'princess', a caricatured character if there ever was one). However, you do need to know what the Foundation is, and what a Seldon crisis is. You won't get that here.

Time Wants a Skeleton by R Rocklynne has a different set of anachronisms. Since this is a less well-known story compared to the others, here's a summary. Lt Tony Crow fails to dodge asteroid 1007 and crashes on it. (It's all the fatigue from the desperate need for dodging close-spaced hurtling asteroids that gets everyone dead, you know). Fortunately for him, the villains  are also right there, and he decides to arrest them as well as get a ride home from this bit of space rock where no human had ever come. Except that there is a skeleton lying in a cave, and Crow knows it predates humanity as well as being a human skeleton. It wears a distinctive ring. Anyway, during the ensuing shoot-up, they all manage to destroy the villains' spacecraft. Except that a scientific expedition promptly lands (the coincidence is exclaimed upon), and rescues the lot. So they fire up the H-H drive that runs on gravitons, of which there are "1846 in a proton and 1 in an electron", which explains weight, forget those H bosons we are nattering on about. "A Wittenberg disrupter tears atoms apart. The free electrons are shunted off into accumulators... The protons go into the proton analyzer where the gravitons are ripped out of them and stored in a special type of spherical field. When we want to move the ship, the gravitons are released... The natural place for a graviton is in a proton. They rush for the protons -- which are already saturated... Gravitons are unable to remain free in three-dimensional space. They escape along the timeline, into the past. The reaction contracts the atoms in the ship... and shoves it forward along the opposite time line-- into the future and forward in space. In the apparent space of a second, therefore, the ship can travel thousands of miles, with no acceleration effects." Of course, the gravitons cannot travel to the future, totally laughable, but in the story, they do, hurling the whole lot into the past onto the planet that broke up to form the asteroids. Just before it's going to be smashed. Ok, and the ring belongs to one of the outlaws. But he doesn't want to be the skeleton of the future. Neither does anyone else. And now it's clear that someone has to be the skeleton, left in the cave when the planet blows up. This leads to a murderous round of passing-the-parcel while everyone tries to fix the ship before the planet blows up. There is, naturally, air, water, streams, plants, and stuff. Anyhow, no spoilers. As you expect, they return to the present. The hero and the heroine (the professor has a beautiful daughter) ought to be safe, eh? After all, it's Christmas. Despite a few really dated scenes, it's a fresh little piece after all.

What can I say about The Weapons Shop? It's a classic which everyone has probably read. A loyal subject of the Empress is horrified to find the evil Weapons Shop people have set up in his village and he will have none of it. Except the Weapons Shop ("The right to bear weapons is the right to be free") has the bestest technology, and can not only read minds but right all wrongs. And our man is much wronged till he realises that the WS guys are the good guys and the Empress is the real evil. He ends up buying his weapon and holding his head high, admired by all and sundry (they are all secret admirers of the WS after all). I imagine this story exemplifies much of the American approach to gun control, and has probably directly influenced millions of young minds over the years. About the quality of writing: it's actually quite appalling the amount of mind-control AE V Vogt has over us mere-mortal readers!

Nerves has thoroughly dated in its technology. Atomics again! This time artificial elements that are produced in reactors. Not the mingy power generators that the real future of the story fiddles around with, oh no, these produce transuranics and other wonderful isotopes. One of them takes an unexpected reaction path and decays into Isotope R, which is bound to decay in an unknown time into Mahler's Isotope, with complete breakdown in a billionth of a second, and goodbye continental USA, or at the least 50 miles of city. Dr Ferrell, the famous peerless surgeon is now a company doctor with National Atomics Products Co., Inc. He is training new doctor Jenkins. Together they face the sudden parade of injured and dead people resulting from the catastrophe. Bring in Dr Brown, Dr Jenkin's wife, a 'nursing doctor', Palmer the factory manager (in those days, it was acceptable for a factory manager to be a kind of hero), Hokusai and Jorgensen, the scientist with untimely appendicitis, and the technologist who alone can suggest what is to be done. Except that Jorgensen is one of those rescued, and near death. All now depends on Jenkins, who turns out to be the atomics-trained stepson of Kahler, the long-dead wizard of all things atomic. And Jenkins fears he is going to crack, with half the continent at stake. This story still has power due to the human angle. And given the recent scares in Fukushima, perhaps not so dated after all, in another way.

Last but not the least, the classic Killdozer! by Theodore Sturgeon. An ancient race wiped out all life using, among others, malevolent negatively charged gaseous entities inimical to all life (phew!). One of the more primitive of these was caught and stored in a neutronium box (warning: dated! Neutronium is too dense to do anything but sink to the centre of the Earth in this timeframe) and tossed around on magma until it finally ended up on an island where a team is sent to build an airfield. The high-tech bulldozer catches an edge of the grey stone in an ancient temple (ha!) and tears it open, releasing the entity--into the bulldozer. Which then proceeds to try and kill everyone on the island (warning: dated! Why only kill the humans?) A crackerjack suspense/adventure story, the original for the trope of the machine with a mind of its own. This and his other story Slow Sculpture have firmly fixed Theodore Sturgeon in my mind as one of the best sci fi authors ever.

A good, if highly dated, collection. Still enjoyable. Probably nudging 4 stars out of 5.

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